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March 02, 2007

Quote for the Day

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Midway through G.K. Chesterton's "Orthodoxy" I ran across a very nice passage:

Every act of will is an act of self-limitation. To desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense every act is an act of self-sacrifice. When you choose anything, you reject everything else ...

Every act is an irrevocable selection and exclusion. Just as when you marry one woman you give up all other women, so when you take one action you give up all of the other courses ...

It is impossible to be an artist and not care for laws and limits. Art is limitation. The essence of every picture is the frame. If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold, creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe ...

You can free things of alien or accidental laws, but not from the laws of their own nature. You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars, but do not free him of his stripes ...

The artist loves his limitations. They constitute the thing he is doing. The painter is glad that the canvas is flat. The sculptor is glad that the clay is colorless.

Sure there are other ways of seeing and thinking about art. I get a lot out of some of them myself. But isn't it terrific that 1) this view of art exists too, and that 2) Chesterton has put the case for it so snappily? And -- a question that I often mull over -- why is this p-o-v so seldom to be encountered these days, whether in the schools or on the arts pages? Instead we're fed the usual lines about self-expression, about conceptual gamesmanship ... It's almost as if the Chestertonian p-o-v is actively being kept from us, isn't it?

I'm reading "Orthodoxy" on audiobook, by the way, a fact that makes my middle-aged eyes happy and grateful. You can find the audio version of "Orthodoxy" at the ultra-excellent Blackstone Audiobooks, and at the iTunes Store.



UPDATE: Chris Floyd posts a terrific passage from Chesterton. A funny line from Chris, who has also been dipping into E.F. Schumacher: "For those of you keeping score at home, this may signal my move so far to the right that I've wrapped around to the far-left (the environmentalist and anti-globalization left, to be specific." And Chris links to this well-worth-wrestling-with "Reactionary's Catechism." Stuart Buck posts some passages from Chesterton and some thoughts of his own here, here, and here. Daniel Tammett suspects that Chesterton was an autistic savant.

posted by Michael at March 2, 2007


Chesterton was a master at putting things snappily, that's for sure. How about the opening to his "Napoleon of Notting Hill": "The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, . . ."

I believe that he made some of the same points about limits and freedom through some of Gabriel Syme's speeches in "The Man Who Was Thursday" (an all-time favorite of mine, BTW).

Posted by: Derek Lowe on March 2, 2007 9:01 PM

A nice paradox that. Here's another: fame is a form of doubt.

Posted by: Luke Lea on March 2, 2007 10:21 PM

scratch that last one. It was supposed to be, "faith is a form of doubt." Not that Chesterton said it though, but he might have.

Posted by: Luke Lea on March 2, 2007 10:22 PM

Nice quote, and true -- in situations where one commits to something. Sometimes I wonder if many of today's "avant-garde" artists can really commit to anything other than furthering their own careers. (Yes, earlier artists did the same thing, though the context of their art was more constricted, requiring more discipline.)

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 3, 2007 11:23 AM

Chesterton's ability to coin paradoxical truths is astounding, although it can almost (almost!)get tiresome after you're a ways into one of his larger books. Still, some are incredibly brilliant. To wit:

"The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery."

More of that quote is here.

Posted by: Chris Floyd on March 3, 2007 11:32 AM

Chesterton was a smart guy, but his side basically lost the culture war. It's not so much that it's being kept from you as that artists nowadays build their lives in opposition to it and it would never occur to them to mention it.

500 years from now they'll probably figure art fell off the boat after World War I or so. And given how mixed up people tend to get about events long ago, they'll probably figure all the artists became deranged after 9/11 destroyed Boston or something. ;)

Posted by: SFG on March 3, 2007 12:34 PM

Well, an artist practicing "self expression" is choosing not to express other people's ideas, so it is certainly self limiting.

All avant-garde movements are limiting, in that each has some particular mode of reality they try to express and the expense of others, e.g. dreams in surrealism, abstraction which rejects representation, expressionism which rejects objective detachment.

So I don't see Chesterton's comments as a repudiation of modern art at all.

Posted by: nathaniel on March 3, 2007 1:30 PM

We don't have standards. And since we don't have standards, we can't judge. But somehow, modernism is the equal of the great work of the past. We just don't know why. I guess its up to the individual to figure it out for themselves. But we should ignore the majority of them if they don't like modernism. They are obviously ignorant as to the quality of modernism, which is good even if we have no standards by which to judge it. I hope this clears things up.

Posted by: Lost in a Fog on March 4, 2007 12:21 PM

You've hit on one of my favorite Chesterton quotes. I too did some Chesterton blogging a while back: here, here, and here.

Posted by: Stuart Buck on March 4, 2007 1:59 PM

Nice quote. This is very much how I think about formal structure in verse. I cringe at the popular conception of poetry wherein the poet starts with some powerful sentiment in need of expression and writes as a sort of release. For myself, the process of solving a puzzle against formal constraints is what leads me to phrases, metaphors, personae that would never have entered my mind independently.

Posted by: J. Goard on March 4, 2007 7:54 PM

Derek -- I'm coming to Chesterton very late, but "The Man Who Would Be Thursday" is next up on my reading list. Looking forward to it.

Luke -- It does have the Chestertonian snap to it, doesn't it?

Donald -- Oh ye of little avant-garde faith!

Chris -- I'm having the same split reaction. He's brilliant, he's great, it's too much ... And then all over again. He's such a virtuoso of paradox and reversals and parallels etc that it can be like reading the twittiest of French writers. But he's affable and down-to-earth too, which redeems a lot of it. Anyway, what a phenom.

SFG -- That's a shrewd hunch. Darn it.

Nathaniel -- We should put your case to Chesterton himself. I wonder if anyone's speaking for him these days.

Lost -- Indeed!

Stuart -- Excellent, thanks!

J. Goard -- I like limits too. My imagination tends to be paralyzed by infinity and to kick into gear when it has specific problems it has to contend with.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 5, 2007 2:05 AM

I've always thought that limitations was what modern art was all about, sometimes very strict limitations.

Jack White, of the White Stripes (a popular group right now, for those who may not have heard of them) had a good quote about using limitations to focus his creativity. His first few albums were very sparse, just guitar and drums with no studio effects. Great stuff, check it out if you haven't.

Again, much of modern art, be it music, painting or whatever, is in fact a continuation of the artistic tradition, not a repudiation as many here seem to believe. The form may look or sound different, but the process and intent are the same.

Posted by: the patriarch on March 5, 2007 11:54 AM

Meant to add that I think you'd be hard pressed to find any successful artist who doesn't believe in limitations.

Posted by: the patriarch on March 5, 2007 11:55 AM

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